Imagine cutting out a delicious lunch salad full of leafy vegetables that are beautiful to you and topped with raw vegetables like tomatoes and grated carrots. So healthy, right? You feel good and slap your back on your food choices. But what if we told you that your healthy meal has the potential to contain the excrement of real animals that can cause foodborne illness? This salad probably looks less appealing and more like a high risk option.
“The main way you get sick of your food today is with your salad, green leafy vegetables and any fruits and vegetables you eat raw and uncooked,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the task force. environmental. “The main way pathogens get into these foods is through irrigation water [used on farms] which is full of animal feces. ”
That’s right, animal feces. Poop. So what are the chances that your lunch contains poop particles?
First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans (approximately 48 million people) contract foodborne illness each year. Foodborne illness (also known as food poisoning) occurs because dangerous and sometimes deadly strains of bacteria such as E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and others are hidden in certain foods. Of the estimated number of people who get sick each year, 128,000 are hospitalized while 3,000 die. And these are just rough figures.
While you can get foodborne illnesses from contaminated animal proteins such as chicken and beef, eggs, milk and cheese, raw products are to blame almost 50% of the time. According to the CDC, green leafy vegetables such as rosemary lettuce and spinach are often the most common among raw vegetables and are a major source of E. coli contamination. It seems that the headlines have been full of memories of several batches of spinach or rosemary in recent years.
“Before you could wash vegetables three times and get it [pathogens] off, but now it’s growing in its roots from the water below, “said Jaydee Hanson, director of policy for the Center for Food Security. people who “cook their lettuce” before eating.
And don’t forget that one in four people contaminate their food when cooking with this ingredient, according to a new study.
The pollution process
When you have a product farm next to an animal farm (chickens, cows, pigs, etc.), there is a lot more poop around, which increases the risk of contaminated irrigation water. And, if you’re thinking that farmers who use manure to fertilize plants mean that the poop on the produce can’t be that big, think about it again.
According to Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, who used to work for the Obama Administration’s Department of Agriculture, the process of composting manure involves the application of heat, which kills many pathogens.
And fortunately, there are restrictions, such as the fact that raw manure cannot be used as fertilizer within 120 days of harvest. “The problem … is that raw manure flows from nearby feedlots or ends up directly in the field, or pathogens end up in agriculture. [agricultural] water and applied directly to the field “.
The crack of poop
More than a decade ago, Congress passed the Food Security Moderation Act to help protect Americans from foodborne illness. The FDA has worked to implement all regulations established by law. However, one area that has not been fully addressed 11 years later is the safety of agricultural water used for products. The agency proposed some standards in 2015, but many consumer and food safety advocates said they fell short.
“The FDA was supposed to set standards for the amount of poop that can be found in irrigation water and sprinkled at lunch,” Faber said. “Having been subjected to extraordinary pressure by farmers, it now depends on farmers how much poop can go to lunch.”
The subject of the tests
The problem is with the evidence. The findings were published through a month-long investigation by Politician revealed that if a farmer uses a microbial test in a morning water sample and comes out clean, that does not mean that a sample of that same water in the evening or the next day will also be clean because the farm water is constantly changing. .
There are environmental factors to consider. Ronholm said birds, wildlife, wind and more can also increase levels of contaminated feces in production fields.
“We’re finding that test levels are not correlated with water safety,” said Dr. James Kincheloe, director of food safety campaigns at the Center for Science of Public Interest (CSPI).
Ronholm said another problem is that the FDA has no jurisdiction to inspect animal feed operations and check for pathogens. He believes legislation is needed to give the FDA the power to conduct such inspections.
The FDA proposed a new set of guidelines for agricultural water in December 2021 under the Product Safety Rule. According to an FDA spokesman, the agency has since held two public meetings and several webinars to explain the proposal and solicit feedback from stakeholders (the deadline for comments ended in April). .
“We are committed to working diligently to consider the comments,” the spokesman said. “The proposed rule is exhaustive and is based on scientific developments and lessons learned from recent research on food outbreaks (especially on issues arising from adjacent and nearby lands). The agency believes that if completed , will help bend the curve of foodborne illness and provide benefits for future generations. ”
Some believe the new guidelines are still too flexible. “Consumers don’t always have the best food safety practices in their kitchen. I’m going to think no, so I want to make sure any food that goes into their kitchen is safe,” Kincheloe said of why he and others fight for strict guidelines. In his opinion, “the guidelines should say, these are the standards that everyone should meet.”
How to protect yourself
First, don’t panic. Eating green leafy vegetables has huge health benefits. While there are some cases of foodborne illness caused by contaminated products, this is by no means an epidemic.
Until stricter guidelines apply, however, there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
- Practice safe handling and preparation of food. The FDA suggests washing your hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods.
- Weigh the risks and identify the most risky ones. Ronholm said Roman lettuce is usually the riskiest of the green leaves simply because its irregular texture makes it easier for pathogens to adhere to it. This does not mean that you should avoid romaine, just make sure you wash it well before eating.
- Ask your local farmers. Danielle Melgar, an advocate for food and agriculture at PIRG, said local farmers know if they are close to livestock farms and farms. Therefore, if you are in the market of a farmer, do not hesitate to ask the producers about their agricultural conditions and choose accordingly.
- Think of indoor growers. “In traditional agriculture, water is not normally tested before it is used to irrigate crops, which means it could contain contaminants, such as pesticides or manure, from external sources and pose a threat to public health, “said Christopher Livingston, general manager of Bowery Farming. states in a recently published report. “Indoor growers, such as Bowery, typically use filtered municipal water, and then further ensure cleanliness by regularly testing irrigation water to detect contaminants and using reverse osmosis to further clean the water.”
- Grow your own food on a balcony or roof, in the backyard or in a communal garden. Melgar said you only know that if you are growing your own food, be aware of other contaminants such as lead in the pipes in your building that carry water to the garden hose. “It’s a balance,” he said.
- Wash green leafy vegetables even when they have been “pre-washed”. Brian referred to a Consumer Reports study in which they determined that there was no difference in the levels of bacteria between the whole head and the triple packaged rosemary lettuce. According to the CDC, “the best way to wash green leafy vegetables is to rinse them under running water. Studies show that this step removes some of the germs and dirt from green leafy vegetables and other vegetables and fruits. But none washing method can remove all germs. “